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When Shreeya Aranake’s internship was canceled during her sophomore year, just as the pandemic took hold, she felt lost.
“I was more sad about my internship being canceled than I was worried about the pandemic, which I think speaks to how slowly I was processing the whole thing,” she said.
She only ended up interning at an Arlington, Va., newspaper for two months instead of the semester she was supposed to. To make up for the canceled internship, she freelanced for local papers in the area.
Now a senior history student at George Washington University, Aranake said she’s anxious about graduating and entering the job market, since she hasn’t been able to get another internship.
“I’m really nervous right now, but I don’t know if that’s just being a senior or if it’s being a senior during COVID-19,” Aranake said. “I hope that eventually I will get an internship based on whatever experience I have.”
She even wrote a column in the GW student newspaper urging academic departments to push job and internship resources to students and spoke out about her stress.
“Being a senior, you start to see your peers get higher-end internships, not just at a random company or establishment,” Aranake said. “I think just comparing yourself to your peers is really one of the most stressful parts about this whole thing.”
COVID-19 robbed college students of countless opportunities, including internships, which often lead to full-time employment. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit for college career services, recruiting practitioners and others who wish to hire the college educated, found that about 22 percent of employers revoked internships in April 2020. Additionally, NACE found 41 percent of employers delayed internship start dates in May 2020, thus reducing the total length of internships, which traditionally run 10 to 12 weeks.
Shawn VanDerziel, NACE’s executive director, said the pandemic “negatively impacted the number of internship opportunities available.”
“For employers, we know that the deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified candidates coming right out of college is paid internship experience,” he said. “So getting as many students this experience is really critical.”
Internships only partially rebounded for summer 2021. NACE’s 2021 Internship & Co-Op Survey found employers reported they would hire 0.5 percent fewer interns than they did for summer 2020. In NACE’s Fall 2021 Quick Poll, 32 percent of employers held summer 2021 internship programs that were exclusively virtual, and 50 percent held programs that were hybrid. VanDerziel doesn’t expect things to change much in the near future.
“We anticipate that this fall those numbers for virtual internships will remain pretty similar because of the ongoing Delta variant,” he said.
To help compensate for the canceled, delayed and virtual internships, institutions are building their alumni networks and creating new programs to better connect students with employers.
Lee Schott, dean for Career Development at Kenyon College, and his team developed professional extension projects, remote learning exercises and opportunities for students designed by Kenyon alumni in different industries. They are meant to give students real-life experience with professionals while also allowing them to build their networks. Schott said students often find it daunting to network with alumni in their interested fields, so the new program provides an easier path.
“We were all excited when we designed it, because it kind of leans into our alumni and allows them to be creative,” Schott said. “And we’ve just been blown away by some of the projects that they submitted, and the students have loved it.” (This paragraph has been updated to correct the quote.)
In one project, an alum who works at NPR developed a program that allowed a student to create a short radio story, which they discussed together. The program has proven so successful that it’s become a permanent offering at Kenyon, Schott said.
Some institutions used their already existing programming to help students adapt. In 2019, the career center at the University of Chicago created short-term virtual project opportunities for students to gain experience with organizations outside the area. Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of career advancement at the university, said through these projects, companies and faculty can hire students to do virtual jobs, including lab research or nonprofit work. That came in especially handy during the pandemic.
“It was really powerful to see how many students felt supported and engaged during this time,” Daw said.
Melanie Stover, director of employer engagement, career services and grant initiatives at Northern Virginia Community College, said over the last year, there was a “noticeable” decrease in internship requests from companies sent to the institution.
At the start of the pandemic, the college created a virtual lobby that enables employers to meet with students about internships and other opportunities in their own Zoom breakout session, Stover said. So far, the sessions have garnered participation from hundreds of students.
“Given NOVA’s multiple campuses, using virtual programming helps to ensure equal access for all students regardless of location or ability to physically attend recruiting events,” Stover said.
Bob Orndorff, senior director of Penn State University Career Services, said his center reaches out to students who have had their internships canceled or delayed and offers individual career counseling and coaching sessions. The center also connects students to its alumni network to help them discover new internship prospects.
“Many students have found opportunities to work remotely, which removes barriers such as the need to relocate and pay for housing during a summer internship,” Orndorff said.
At the University of Washington, Briana Randall, executive director of the Career and Internship Center, said internship and job postings are “through the roof,” with postings even higher than they were pre-pandemic.
“Internships really came back and in large part this past summer, some in person, some virtual and some hybrid,” Randall said. “So I think the internship market has rebounded and is maybe stronger than before.”
She said her office’s main goal is to help students build experience, even without an internship.
“If it’s not going to be the internship that they were hoping for, can they volunteer or can they do a project for a neighbor?” Randall said. “We just encourage them to be a little bit more open-minded about how they can build experience.”
NACE’s VanDerziel said it’s key for colleges to help students think “creatively” about their job prospects, so they can be flexible once they enter the job market.
“There are jobs available,” VanDerziel said. Students just need help seeing themselves “in other industries and other jobs” rather than “bind themselves to that one particular job or one particular industry.”
Adriana Lacy, who founded Journalism Mentors, an organization that helps equip the next generation of media leaders, believes students greatly benefit from mentorship programs on campus.
“Giving people that facetime is just so important, because it helps them get their foot in the door and get to meet people,” Lacy said. “I think even for schools that may not have a large alumni base, doing faculty mentorship is another great example.”
She added that campuses could do a better job teaching all students, regardless of their major, on how to be entrepreneurs or pursue freelance work.
For Kenyon’s Schott, the challenge is to help students reflect on the work that they’ve been doing and articulate it to employers. Likewise, Daw said her office is trying to help students see the benefits of virtual internships, including that students don’t need to move to access a job.
“Our students have really taken advantage of the opportunity and are in a good position,” Daw said. “We had our highest number of students with internships this past summer.”
Thanks to the new virtual resources made available to students during the pandemic, some institutions have seen an uptick in student engagement. Schott has been at Kenyon College for 10 years and said the “appetite” for career development has grown.
Daw, at the University of Chicago, said the institution has always had a very strong level of student engagement in its career center, but even so, it’s booming.
“We’ve seen the numbers continue to go up as students needed assistance navigating the uncertain time,” Daw said. “But we also found that the more opportunities that we made available to them, the more excited they were to work with us.”
Randall said visits to the University of Washington’s career center website are “sky-high” and her office has seen high attendance at webinars on career development. However, she said her office would like to see more one-on-one appointments and virtual job fairs.
At Penn State, Orndorff said there was a “significant increase” in virtual career counseling sessions, cross-campus programs and online resource usage. Additionally, he said creating a virtual platform for the spring 2021 job fair increased engagement, too.